Revolution and Judicial Review: Chief Justice Holt's Opinion in City of London v. Wood

Hamburger, Philip

In 1702, in an opinion touching upon parliamentary power, Chief Justice Sir John Holt discussed limitations on government in language that has long seemed more intriguing than clear. Undoubtedly, the Chief Justice was suggesting limitations on government -- limitations that subsequently have become quite prominent, particularly in America. Yet even the best report of his opinion concerning these constraints has left historians in some doubt as to just what he was saying and why it was significant.

The case in which Chief Justice Holt was so obscure about matters of such importance, City of London v. Wood, revived the old maxim that a person could not be judge in his own case. The defendant, Thomas Wood, had declined to serve as a sheriff for the City of London. In response, the City brought an action of debt to recover the penalty in the Mayor's Court, formally composed of the Mayor and Aldermen. As was customary, the City brought this action in the name of the Mayor, commonalty, and citizens of London. Although Wood was held liable by the Mayor's Court, he eventually had the judgment overturned by three royal judges sitting at Guildhall, who argued, among other things, that the Mayor could not be judge in his own case.


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October 7, 2015